John Quinn
MusicWeb International
December 2007

This disc contains the very final concert, the fifty-ninth, of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. This was the last of three concerts given in New York to conclude the Pilgrimage. We’ve already had one disc devoted to Christmas cantatas, performed on Christmas Day itself, and its companion, recorded at a concert given just two days later. Now here’s the final Christmas instalment.

It must have been quite an emotional occasion for the Pilgrims, knowing that this was the end of their journey—a journey of discovery and celebration. Gardiner makes that clear in his notes, but even if he had not done so anyone who has followed the series to date would have guessed as much from the comments that various performers have made in their own recollections, printed in earlier booklets.

The concert begins not with a cantata but with a motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225.This was a most intelligent piece of programming since the concert was to close with the cantata that bears the same title. The motet begins with infectious joyfulness—Sir John refers to the “joyous, spirited singing”—but the Monteverdi Choir is no less alive to more reflective moments in Bach’s piece. This means that the central section is marvellously poised. In the outer stretches of the work, however, they provide singing of superb clarity, full tone and rhythmic vivaciousness.

BWV 152 contrasts very strongly with the motet. This is a work from Bach’s Weimar period and it is scored for very modest forces indeed. A solo soprano and a bass are accompanied by just six instrumentalists—recorder, oboe, viola d’amore, viola da gamba and a continuo, comprising cello and organ. Alfred Dürr suggests, in his definitive study of the cantatas, that perhaps, after the other musical demands made on the Weimar musicians during the Christmas period, Bach had very limited forces available to him and made a virtue of necessity in his scoring. The result is a wonderfully intimate creation, which is sung delightfully by Gillian Keith and Peter Harvey.

Harvey, one of the rocks of this whole series, is in fine voice. Gillian Keith also excels, especially in the sublime aria, ‘Stein der über alle Schätze’. Here the recorder and viola d’amore intertwine sinuously in support of her touching singing. This is a wonderfully delicate movement and the fragility of the music contrasts pointedly with the much more emphatic bass recitatives that are placed on either side of it. There’s no concluding chorale. Instead the cantata ends with a dialogue between the Soul (soprano) and Jesus (bass), which is very well done here. This wasn’t a cantata with which I was very familiar so I’m particularly delighted to find it in such an excellent performance.

Next we hear BWV 122, a Leipzig piece. This is based on an old hymn, dating from 1597, which would have been familiar to the Leipzig congregations. Peter Harvey has a challenging aria, which, predictably, he puts across very well. I like Katharine Fuge’s lovely, pure tone in the following recitative and then she and James Gilchrist combine most effectively in a terzetto, in which they’re joined by the altos of the choir, who sing the chorale melody beneath the soloists’ florid lines.

The first two cantatas have been predominantly reflective in tone. Now, however, the decks are cleared for some serious rejoicing, beginning with BWV 28. Against a sprightly accompaniment Joanne Lunn opens the proceedings with what Dürr calls a “joyful, dance-like song of thanksgiving.” This is an engaging, smiling piece of singing; not only is Miss Lunn characterful but she’s also technically assured. There follows a magnificent chorus, which finds the Monteverdi Choir on stunning, incisive form. Gilchrist is at his most expressive in the recitative ‘Gott ist ein Quell’ and then he and Daniel Taylor are terrific in the sprightly duet ‘Gott hat uns im heurigen Jahre gesegnet.’

But you sense that the whole concert has been building up to the performance of BWV 190. This cantata has come down to us with only a fragmentary orchestral score and Gardiner and his colleagues engaged in some well-informed reconstruction. For example, timpani and a trio of trumpets have been added to the opening chorus, to thrilling effect and, as we shall see, there’s an even more inspired piece of re-scoring later on.

The piece opens with a chorus that is nothing less than an outbreak of unbridled rejoicing. On this occasion the music is invested with the sort of vital, virtuoso singing and playing for which Gardiner has become renowned. He and his performers convey a life-enhancing optimism. One senses that everyone was on their toes to provide the Big Finish to the Pilgrimage. The cantus firmus interjections from Luther’s German Te Deum are especially fervent but then so is the whole of this chorus; it’s a really spine tingling performance.

Later comes a duet for tenor and bass soloists, ‘Jesus soll mein alles sein.’ In an inspired piece of scoring, Gardiner allots the obbligato to the viola d’amore. The obbligato part consists largely of “chains of wistful, gestural arabesques bouncing off a silent main beat” (Gardiner). The effect is quite ravishing. One might have feared that the delicate, husky sound of the viola d’amore would be swamped by the singers. However, without holding back, Gilchrist and Harvey sing with such exemplary control and taste that everything fits together beautifully. Gardiner chose to repeat this movement as the second and final encore at the end of the concert and it’s a nice thought that this was the last music to be heard during the Pilgrimage. The thought is all the more poignant since the violist, Katherine McGillvray, died last year aged just thirty-six; the CD is dedicated to her memory.

After this luminous duet comes a tenor recitative. It was the final solo of the concert and, therefore, of the Pilgrimage and it’s fitting that this should have been entrusted to James Gilchrist, since he’s been another mainstay of the whole enterprise. He produces a marvellously weighted, nuanced piece of singing, which typifies the skill and perception of so many of his contributions to the Pilgrimage.

All that remains is the final, affirmative chorale, which, as performed here, seems to be a summation and a salute to the genius of Bach. This performance anticipated by a few hours the New Year for which the cantata was written. As such, it looked back on a year of homage to Bach and celebration of his music in the 250th anniversary year of his death. But the performance also seems to look forward with confidence, perhaps because Gardiner and his team felt inspired and refreshed by their shared and individual experiences during the course of the Pilgrimage. For the Pilgrims this marked journey’s end. For those of us who are reliving their journey through the medium of CD we have many more volumes in prospect. The next instalment is keenly awaited but for now this splendid disc will sustain us.